Sunday, January 15, 2006

IMonk, Prissiness, and Christian Culture

Michael Spencer's December post on prissiness in Christian culture recently caught my eye and left me thinking. It's not just that the good v. bad line in his post works out to men = good, women = bad (excepting Peggy Noonan); I've heard that line before and can hardly muster the interest to respond on that level. But his stereotypes, for all their age, are not yet faded; they still have some life left in them. It would be easy to dismiss Spencer's comments as chauvinism, for they are unmistakably that; but because the underlying concerns actually resonate, I'll pass over the woman-baiting/man-baiting comments (I wonder how much is just marketing gimmick anyway). Here I will take a look at the men's and women's cultures with a quick word on both sides of the house. In the interest of full disclosure, if any stray reader isn't already aware, I'm on the women's side of the house myself.

On the women's side of the house
The woman's stereotype is nagging, arguing, and whining. (These days, large and prominent women's lobbies use uncomfortably similar strategies as tools of the trade, part of the lobbyists' repertoire. That approach is not exactly a stereotype-buster. I do not wish to imply that all lobbying is that bad or that these are the only tactics of lobbyists. The point is that women's lobbying using the tools of a negative women's stereotype plays into that stereotype.) Nagging and complaining are the traditional tactics of the powerless, tactics designed to annoy people into compliance simply to make the unpleasantness stop. Winning by making yourself odious, by taking yourself to a place where nobody cares to deal with you, is a poor strategy. But more than that, it's morally repugnant, dishonest and manipulative. It's a type of bullying which few victims are skilled enough to escape unscathed and uncompromised. It also locates the perpetrator outside of reasonable and mature society.

Another stereotype is a certain fussiness over little things. Are women prone to prissiness? The historical woman's responsibility of raising children may have led us to focus more on smaller things which happen in our homes and are under our authority such as children's crude language, to focus less on concerns outside our assigned area. Have we become tunnel-visioned?

Spencer also points out that, in history, much of the temperance movement in the U.S. early last century was led by women who were distressed over the male alcoholics' unstable family lives and tendency to physically harm their wives. It's often tricky to know how much of a noble cause is the desire to help others, how much to protect yourself, how much to get your own way. No doubt all play a part. But the temperance movement's result, the temporary prohibition of alcohol in the U.S., left some uncomfortable questions on the table. Has women's historical lack of power led to a manipulative use of morality as a tool for getting the upper hand?

If you take a person with a small sphere of influence, a small sphere of authority, and one main tool for reaching beyond it (morality), you're going to see that tool abused. It's not right, but it's predictable. Morality that forgets God, that is steered by the "divine right" of the personal convenience of the wielder, is being used in an immoral way. How often do we succumb to that temptation?

On the men's side of the house
The man's stereotpye is strong and powerful. Unfortunately, we live in an age where many are horrified by power. It's an understandable reaction to the abuses of the past. But anything that hints of power is now suspect, from plain references to control, order, or obedience, to moderate ones such as reverence, respect, and loyalty. Things that are related to power tangentially, such as gentleness and humility, can also be awkward. A man who is in power has become a distrusted expression of power.

Women are at home in a world where overt power is not available; men are not. Is our society playing by women's rules? Spencer's post is the voice of a man trapped in a woman's world, looking for a way out. "Blame the women" (or Spencer's only slightly more oblique "blame effeminacy", the influence of women) is not exactly an original or ground-breaking approach. It's not at the top of the "realistic and honest" scale either, as prissiness and whining are hardly powerful enough adversaries to stop someone who actually has strength of character and is resolved towards a goal. Beyond that, "blame the women" is not even productive; scapegoating others is less productive than accepting responsibity for what each one can fix on his own.

If power and authority are to become once again rightful matters that can be discussed without shame and embarrassment, they have to be rehabilitated. If women stereotypically abuse morality, men stereotypically abuse power, using it as a dishonest way to get their own way. It is easy to remember that morality is supposed to take its lead from God's love and holiness, is supposed to serve him; this has not prevented abuses. But it is easy to forget that power is also supposed to take its lead from God, likewise taking its lead from his love and holiness, likewise serving him. Power that forgets God, steered by the human convenience of the one in power, will be abused whenever it is used. The current posture of half-hearted abdication and painfully self-conscious power sharing has not worked very well. The solution to the abuse of power is not a power-vacuum; that will be filled one way or another. Complain about effeminization if you will but nature abhors a vacuum.

If you are interested in the rightful use of power, it seems that the challenge is to take up not just the right of power but also its responsibility, holding it as a steward under Christ and not as an independent despot or tyrant. Left to our own devices, steered by our own egos, that is what we become. Strength and power have to be redeemed. Men, your work is cut out for you.

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